NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — A future war in space is less likely to be fought with missiles than with electronic signals and malware. Such a prospect has unnerved Air Force leaders at a time when the military is growing increasingly dependent on space systems for essential missions.

The military is confident that its own spacecraft are tightly encrypted and unlikely to be taken down by hackers. It worries, however, about the vulnerability of commercial satellites that host military payloads.

The Air Force is eyeing a possible fix: Adding encryption devices to payloads to protect them from tampering or hacking even if the satellite that hosts them comes under attack.

Al Tadros, vice president of space infrastructure and civil space at SSL. Credit: SSL
Al Tadros, vice president of space infrastructure and civil space at SSL. Credit: SSL

To test the concept, the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center has contracted Innoflight, a business that specializes in cybersecurity for space systems. The company in turn signed a contract with the commercial satellite firm SSL to develop a high-fidelity simulation environment for testing the security of hosted payloads on commercial satellites.

Al Tadros, vice president of space infrastructure and civil space at SSL, said this project presents a “major opportunity” for the government to increase the use of commercial space technology and also meet the military’s stringent cybersecurity requirements. Hosting payloads on commercial satellites gives the government cheaper and faster access to space.

“The government wants a level of security for payloads that are hosted on commercial satellites,” Tadros said Sept. 19 in an interview with SpaceNews. “It’s a reasonable thing. But it hasn’t been developed previously.”

The companies plan to show the Air Force in a digital simulation how an encryption device could be integrated into a commercial system.

Military officials worry about hostile attacks and want systems safeguarded from tampering or intrusions by hackers trying to gain access to data or redirect data. A more common problem is inadvertent interference, Tadros said, as when someone turns on a transmitter and accidentally disrupts a satellite signal. Regardless, finding a way to protect hosted payloads would be a major breakthrough for the Air Force.

“Security is one element of resilience, and hosted payloads are part of the solution for increased resilience,” said Tadros.

The possibility that enemy hackers could disable or jam U.S. satellite networks is becoming increasingly real as countries like Russia have shown it can be done.

“Many space observers wrongly assume that the main threat to U.S. satellites is some sort of direct kinetic attack. In fact, the most likely aggression would involve jamming or cyber assault on satellite signals and links that impede the ability of terrestrial users to access orbital assets,” said defense industry consultant Loren Thompson, of the Lexington Institute.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson noted that space was a “benign environment” up until about 10 years ago. “We must expect space to be a contested domain in any future high end conflict,” she said at the Air Force Air Space Cyber conference.

Intelligence agencies have warned that both Russia and China have aggressive programs to demonstrate capabilities to attack space assets. The tools to make malicious software or jamming devices to disrupt satellite signals also are becoming cheaper and more accessible.

In a recent report on Russia’s military capabilities, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency said Russia’s space program is “both formidable and in a state of rebuilding.” Russia has concluded that “gaining and maintaining supremacy in space has a decisive impact on the outcome of future conflicts,” the DIA report said.

Counterspace programs are being pursued by Russia, analysts said, to disrupt foreign military command-and-control or information networks because they are so critical to the fast-paced, high-tech conflicts that are more likely to be fought in the future.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an international conflict-monitoring group, has consistently reported that its drones watching the conflict in eastern Ukraine have been subject to military-grade GPS jamming.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...